Canada’s failed vaccine partnership with China: The ongoing search for transparency
Canada’s recent agreements with Sanofi, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson to procure millions of doses of prospective COVID-19 vaccines have been met with optimism and anticipation. The move joins a growing list of Canada’s vaccine procurement deals with pharmaceutical companies, including Moderna and Pfizer.
Dr. Joanne Langley, co-lead of Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, recently told CBC Radio’s The House that “The vaccine task force strategy is to develop – and we have developed – a portfolio of vaccines … If one or two of them fails, we hope to have a number in our back pocket that we can use.”
The wisdom of this strategy has become apparent in recent months as a deal to test China’s COVID-19 vaccine in a Canadian Phase I/II trial unraveled at the seams. The breakdown culminated in an announcement by Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) of the dissolution of the partnership. Canadians have been left wondering what exactly motivated Canada to enter into such an unstable partnership in the first place given the dire state of Canada-China relations and the scandalous history of China’s vaccine industry.
The now defunct partnership between the Canadian government, CanSino Biologics and China’s military was terminated due to China’s apparent decision to block customs clearance of its vaccine to Canada. Whether an act of political retaliation, a logistical decision based on the decrease in Canada’s COVID-19 cases, or a combination of both, China has come under scrutiny for engaging in “vaccine nationalism.”
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, formerly assistant deputy minister overseeing Canada’s vaccine collaborations with China, recently told Global News that China has a history of creating customs obstacles as leverage in trade disagreements. McCuaig-Johnston further said that “China’s success in vaccines is standing on the back of Canadian researchers and scientists. Over the years we helped China develop its capacity. But China is no longer a reliable partner.”
Meanwhile, CanSino has completed the second phase of its clinical trials in China, has been granted a patent and has already shipped its candidate vaccine to other partner countries for Phase III testing, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Argentina, Chile and Pakistan where the COVID-19 burden remains high. Dr. Xuefeng Yu, Chairman of CanSino, recently told the Globe and Mail that Canada is “not an ideal place to run Phase III (trials),” given that such late-stage testing necessitates tens of thousands of participants.
Yet, despite millions invested by the Canadian government, months of research setbacks and eventual termination of the Canada-China Phase I/II trial, Canada maintains a collaboration with CanSino and China’s military on the vaccine’s development. Surprisingly, Drs. Scott Halperin and Joanne Langley of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax and Principal Investigators on the now terminated Phase I/II Canada-China trial, are registered as Principal Investigators on the Phase III China-Pakistan trial. Langley is also the recently appointed co-chair of the Canadian COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force quoted above.
Aside from the conflict of interest, the lack of transparency is troubling given the ongoing opaqueness surrounding the Canada-China Phase I/II partnership – specifically, the Canadian government’s failure to disclose that the collaboration included China’s military. Moreover, Canada’s government has been criticized for a lack of transparency surrounding its Vaccine Task Force that operated for months unbeknownst to Canadian citizens and is steeped in conflicts of interest that are hidden from public view.
While China continues to benefit from Canadian technology and scientific expertise, it is highly unlikely that Canadians will reap any benefits. If anything, the ongoing lack of transparency will further undermine public trust in the government’s oversight of emerging vaccines and exacerbate citizens’ vaccine hesitancy. If Canada intends to eventually add CanSino’s vaccine to its portfolio of candidates, it is unlikely that the vaccine would be well received by Canadians given that public trust in China’s vaccine products is already low and that none of the countries currently slated for CanSino’s Phase III trials have a regulatory system as robust or stringent as Canada’s.
The original decision to collaborate with China lacked sound judgement despite overwhelming evidence that it was ill-advised. This latest decision to continue providing China with Canadian intellectual know-how and guidance is entirely preposterous and begs the question: Why is the co-chair of Canada’s Vaccine Task Force quietly collaborating as co-lead on CanSino’s joint vaccine trial with China’s military after the NRC terminated an existing partnership on the same vaccine’s development? Moreover, is Canada’s government supporting this? If so, for what purpose?
If the Canadian government’s goal is to establish an adequate supply of safe and effective vaccines while maintaining its citizens’ trust, transparency must be a priority. Canada has made significant progress in focusing its efforts on domestic vaccine development and procuring a diverse portfolio of vaccine candidates from international allies. It would be a shame if vaccine adoption was undermined by bureaucratic secrecy and political intrigue, rather than upheld by reliable partnerships that support robust vaccine uptake.